A Denver, CO mom offers multiracial teens a sense of community via their phones
When her oldest child, Hans, was born in 2017, Lynn VanderWielen, who is Dutch American, initially described him to strangers as “half Dutch, a quarter Russian, and a quarter Nigerian.” But that didn’t quite feel right. Nor did she know what language was appropriate. Then, when Hans was a few months old, she had a revelation while breastfeeding. It suddenly occurred to her that the questions she had about mixed race identity weren’t really about Hans.
“This is a me issue,” she said to herself. “I need to educate myself more.”
Digging into the literature, she quickly realized that “doing the fraction thing” was not honoring her son as a whole person. He was both black and white: Russian, Dutch and Nigerian all at once, not parceled out in pieces. “I had to learn and unlearn a lot of stuff,” as she explained in a recent phone interview.
An academic by training, doing research was home turf for VanderWielen who held a Ph.D. in health service research and organization and had worked in mental health and advocacy for African American families. She knew the importance of words and representation, and understood that these things mattered when it came to self-esteem and positive psychological outcomes for young people. As her research deepened, both she and her husband Alexander, an internal medicine physician, thought it might be helpful to share what she was learning with others. The idea for Samahra, an app for multiracial teens and their parents, was born.
Alexander certainly understood the challenges ahead for his children (the couples’ daughter, Ida, was born in 2020). Like them, he was also biracial, the son of Nigerian and Russian parents, who emigrated to the U.S. when Alexander was two. However, his experience was one in which mixed race identity wasn’t necessarily part of family conversations at the dinner table. Both Lynn and Alexander wanted to make sure that their own children would feel free to express their specific challenges and questions around multiracial identity— and to feel confident that their parents would help them wade through the often complicated morass.
“Multiracial youth struggle with navigating their identities,” said Annabelle Atkin, an assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University. We know that family cohesion is a protective factor against substance abuse and that it contributes to the emotional health of multiracial youth, she added, but often times parents lack “racial socialization competency.” They may be immigrants, or from a generation that didn’t speak of such things, or they may be white, without prior exposure to the experiences of people of color. Bottom line: many multiracial kids could use more help from their families.
VanderWielen initially thought about launching a blog, or perhaps compiling her research into a book, but in the end she decided that an app was a better fit. After having two children, she had been using an app herself to lose weight. VanderWielen appreciated how it allowed her to access information in an “easy to digest environment” and figured that offering the same convenience for busy parents and teens would also work well.
To prepare, she conducted sixty interviews with multiracial adults — asking them what their parents or caregivers could have done better. What, if anything, would have helped them navigate this terrain more easily?
“We know that a lot of the literature talks about the process of othering,” she said. “Children who feel like they don’t fit in. We know that connecting with one’s community is a hugely important issue for healthy psychological and social development. It comes up frequently in the research. Negative outcomes such as peer pressure and substance abuse are rooted in a lack of belonging — feeling left out, or somehow outside of one’s immediate community, school setting, or neighborhood.”
Another issue VanderWielen zeroed in on was parental trust — the importance of having family and caregivers who validate the identity and experiences of children. For example, if a child or teen comes home recounting an incidence of racism, it’s important that they have parents who can hear that and not dismiss it or brush it off.
In designing the app, Lynn worked closely with Jalaya Alexander, a multiracial adult friend and colleague who currently serves as director of youth engagement at Samhara(Rise) in addition to being a registered nurse at a children’s hospital. Together, they came to the conclusion that while teens of all races wrestle with identity, multiracial teens need support with specificity as their particular experiences are often missing from other curricula.
Samhara, VanderWielen’s app for parents, was launched in 2022, while Samhara(Rise), which was created by and for mixed race teens, followed in 2023.
Through her own independent consulting work, Lynn managed to finance both apps — hiring a developer and contributing her own sweat equity. She even paid a board of eight youth advisors for a time. At this point, however, she says that she has taken the venture as far as she can on her own, and is currently seeking external funding. “I’m not a marketer,” she explained. “I’m an academic and a researcher by training.”
Finding funding won’t be easy, she added. “Multiracial development is not something most people have thought about. They haven’t been challenged to think about it.”
But that may soon change. Mixed race youth are, by far, the fastest growing demographic in America today. This dramatic shift in the population may eventually challenge us all to rethink our perceptions of race and identity. The Samhara apps are a small but important step in that direction.
More research is needed, said Annabelle Atkin at Purdue University, who is currently seeking multiracial youth volunteers and their parents to share their family experiences as part of several ongoing studies.
In the meantime, Samhara is “a space where multiracial youth can go and not feel judged,” said VanderWielen. “Where they can define themselves instead of having others define them. It’s a place where their identity is valued, and they can come together as a community with similar challenges and questions.”
Although the number of users is still small, at about 200 subscribers for both the parent and youth apps, the feedback has been powerful, said VanderWielen. Samhara(Rise) is “allowing teens to feel less isolated as they set out on this journey of becoming who they want to be. It offers them a big boost of confidence.”